In Hollywood movies, people who go into hiding change their name and appearance to avoid detection. They wear sunglasses. They ditch their cars. They do everything they can to look completely different.
In reality, if you want to hide, all you have to do is get sloppy. Let yourself go. Look like a rumpled bed. People won’t even see you.
I know, because they never used to see me.
One of my former classmates posted this “Flashback Friday” picture on her Facebook page a couple of weeks ago. It was taken when we were in the 8th grade, and all I could think of when I saw myself was, “Wow! I’d forgotten that girl existed.”
I asked my 11 year old son to pick me out of the crowd. He studied it for a moment then said, “You’re not in this picture.” When I assured him I was, he picked four other girls.
My daughters also had trouble determining which one was me. They also picked other girls. When I told them which one I was, my oldest daughter laughed and said, “Wow! Could you have BEEN a bigger nerd?”
FLASHBACK! It was like I was 13 all over again and fading into the woodwork.
So which one is me? On the ground, lower left. Bad posture, boring hair. Easily overlooked.
I’m not naturally flexible, and that pose was killing me. I couldn’t even sit up straight.
As opposed to Marie, the beautiful brunette on the lower right. She was the team captain and one of the most popular girls in school. Most of the other cheerleaders were in her clique.
In fact, when you look at this picture, you get a, “One of these things is not like the others” vibe, and that “one thing” is me. I don’t look like I belong.
Some would say I didn’t. My winning that spot on the squad caused a big controversy. I wasn’t popular, pretty, or flexible, so how in the heck did I beat out other girls? Because I did the tryout routine correctly. Several others did not. But when I was chosen instead of them, one of the girls demanded a recount. It got ugly.
So why am I telling you this?
Because how I felt on the inside in those days is totally, accurately reflected by how I look on the outside.
I’m the youngest of four. I wore hand-me-downs. I got leftovers. I had to share.
My siblings had no patience for me. Hurry up. Be quiet. Go away. They’d laugh at my ideas and belittle my concerns. I had absolutely no status in my household. They only time they’d leave me alone was when I had my nose in a book.
School wasn’t much better. I was an average student and average athlete. But I could write and tell stories. When I got my first publishing byline at age 10, my 5th grade teacher told me I should be a writer when I grew up. When I went home and excitedly told my parents what she’d said, my dad laughed and said, “Honey, you need a ‘real’ job.”
So let’s recap:
- Ideas are dumb
- Average skills
- Talent dismissed
I wasn’t feeling the love.
And you can tell it by how I look. The invisible cheerleader. Aspiring to great things, but lacking polish and skill. One foot in, the rest of me out.
As I’ve told you before, it took a snarky remark from a relative a year later to get me to put down the junk food and pick up the jump rope and get to work. By the time I finished high school, my life was totally different.
So what happened?
There’s an old (and controversial) behavioral term called the “Hawthorne Effect” that refers to the tendency of people to work harder and perform better when they’re given attention. It goes back to experiments done during the 1920’s and 30’s at the Hawthorne Works Electrical Company near Chicago in which researchers were trying to see if adding more light would boost worker productivity. For the duration of the experiment, it did. After it was over, it didn’t. Researchers concluded that it wasn’t the light that increased productivity, but the attention given to the workers.
That’s what happened to me.
I was so used to being ignored and overlooked – of hiding in plain sight – that when people first started paying attention to me after my makeover, I literally looked over my shoulder to see who they were talking to.
After so many years of being dismissed, it was a shock to be treated with respect. To have people hold doors for me. To NOT be cut off mid-sentence.
If you’ve always been treated with respect, it’s hard to imagine those little courtesies matter. If you’ve always been overlooked and ignored, it’s hard to imagine that others can treat you with respect. For me, it was a revelation. That quickly built my confidence.
Because of the “Hawthorne Effect” – of getting positive attention – my grades shot up. I started dancing. I joined the drama club and the debate team. Later, I started modeling and doing pageants. Four and half years after being the cheerleader with the bad posture, I won “Miss Poise and Personality” at a beauty pageant. All because I changed how I treated myself. Which then changed how everyone else treated me.
Here are some other cringe-worthy school pictures:
Ryan Seacrest at 14. Twenty five years later, his media empire is worth $250 Million – and growing.
Angelina Jolie at 16. Today, she’s considered one of the most beautiful women in the world.
George Clooney at 14. The two-time “Sexiest Man Alive” credits the Bell’s Palsy he suffered at this time to helping him develop his sense of humor.
Nicole Kidman at 16: From awkward to awe-inspiring in just a few short years.
So why am I revisiting these old photos?
To show you that you don’t go from invisible to center stage over night. Nobody just “wakes up beautiful” one morning, unless they happen to fall asleep gorgeous the night before.
No, my guess is that like me, Ryan, Angelina, George, and Nicole experienced their own “Hawthorne Effect” during high school. They got noticed for a talent, and the positive feedback gave them the courage and confidence to build on that talent. The polish and finesse came later.
Now while it’s always fun to go back and look at how far some people have come, sometimes it’s just as important to revisit how far you yourself have gone in your lifetime – particularly if you’ve had past success.
Because you can’t always sustain success.
Sometimes, through a series of unfortunate events – job loss, divorce, a family death, financial crisis, etc. – you find yourself going backwards in life. The future that was once set in stone turned to dust and blew away, and you lay in bed at night with tears streaming down your face, wondering why this is happening to you.
Been there, done that, too.
I say fortunately, because I know what it’s like to taste both success and failure. I’ve seen the highest highs and lowest lows – more than once. The bad news is, it really sucks to start over. The good news is, you can. You just have to do what you did before: start slowly and regain your confidence. It’s totally up to you.
Fifty years ago, Ike and Tina Turner were a hit. Ten years later, they were a “has been.” Ike didn’t take the decline well and abused drugs, alcohol – and sadly, Tina. After a particularly vicious fight, Tina walked out in 1976 with 36 cents in her pocket (“a quarter, a dime, and a penny”), and never looked back.
It was rough at first – she stayed with friends and did the Las Vegas and cabaret circuit, followed by guest appearances on several variety shows – but she was determined to make it on her own. It wasn’t easy. She had more flops than hits, but slowly, surely, she regained her success. She cut a song with Rod Stewart. She opened for the Rolling Stones.
Finally, she struck gold with Private Dancer in 1984 – when she was 45. She endured a brutal tour schedule for that album and the next (400 concerts) to do exactly what she needed to do: ensure her legacy and fund her retirement. She was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1991, and aside from four more tours over the next two decades, she’s been enjoying retirement in Switzerland ever since.
So why do I mention this?
Because going from failure to success as a teen is a lot easier than doing it later in life. But it’s just as sweet. Sometimes, even more so. Just ask Tina.
So if you’re “hiding in plain sight” like I was in 8th grade – or if you’ve been forced into hiding through a series of unfortunate events – I encourage you to set your sights for something better. Take your talents, gain (or regain) some confidence, put yourself out there – and watch the “Hawthorne Effect” kick in. Bask in the admiration. Feel the love. Bring your “A” game and enjoy success. It’s AMAZING what a little praise will do.
Soon, you won’t be able to hide in plain sight anymore. Just like in the movies, you’ll need a wig and sunglasses to blend in.
Diana Pemberton-Sikes is an image consultant and author of Wardrobe Magic, an ebook that shows women how to dress well whatever their age, shape, size, or budget. Download Wardrobe Magic right here.